Copyright 2007 Joe Smulevitz, C.H., M.H.

When we think of natural medicines for colds and flu one of the foremost remedies that comes to mind is Echinacea.  And for good reason, multiple studies document the support of Echinacea for the common cold.  The most current study at the University of Connecticut School of Pharmacy, Hartford Hospital, Connecticut, confirmed previous research that Echinacea is effective in preventing and treating the common cold.  The results were published in the July 2007 edition of The Lancet Infectious Diseases journal.

Although, most of us are aware of Echinacea, not many are familiar with its long and intriguing medicinal history.

Native Americans of the Great Midwest Plains region used native to North America, Echinacea as medicine more than any other plant.  Although there are nine species of this beautiful, daisy-like wildflower, only E. angustifolia, E. pallida, and E. purpurea have a history of healing. Native Americans primarily used E. angustifolia, and E. pallida, internally and externally for a wide assortment of ailments.  At least 14 different tribes employed Echinacea for conditions such as, toothaches, snakebites, wounds, burns, joint pains, sore throats, coughs, colds and infections.

Early European settlers, to the North American Midwest in the 1800s, noticed the Native Americans heavy reliance on Echinacea, and began to apply it for many of the same purposes. However, its popularity did not soar until the 1870s, when a German lay physician, H.C.F. Meyer, learned of the benefits of Echinacea from the Indians in Pawnee City, Nebraska.  He began selling a patented medicine containing E. angustifolia as its main ingredient and called it "Meyer's Blood Purifier," claiming it was effective in treating nearly all disorders.  Meyer brought his formula to the attention of a pioneering pharmacist and manufacturer, John Uri Lloyd, credited with introducing Echinacea to the medical profession in 1887.  One segment of practitioners in particular, "the Eclectics," adopted extensive uses of E. angustifolia in their treatments.  Eclectic physicians, prominent around the late 19th and early 20th century, favored the use of American medicinal plants in their practice.  They accumulated wide-ranging clinical experience in the use of Echinacea, (especially the root of E. angustifolia).  The herb was used to treat a great number of diseases and ailments including tuberculosis, cancer, gonorrhea, syphilis, skin disorders, blood poisoning, typhoid, bites from snakes and spiders.

By the 1930s, Echinacea fell from favor in the United States with the advent of penicillin and other newer pharmaceutical drugs.  However, in Europe the demand for Echinacea continued to grow and severe shortages of supply were experienced.  To meet the increasing European demand, a German firm, Madaus & Company attempted to import E. angustifolia seeds from the United States.  The seeds turned out to be E. purpurea instead of E. angustifolia.  Extensive research began in Germany on E. purpurea starting in the 1930s, continuing to the present.  Important conclusions drawn from the research suggests E. purpurea, and its preparations are useful in treating colds, flu's, healing wounds, and infections of the upper respiratory tract while stimulating the immune system.

European research helped Echinacea make a comeback, during the 1980s in North America, as concerns of the dangers of antibiotic overuse and immune system disorders grew.  A rapid increase in natural health care and health products followed.  Echinacea became one of North America's top-selling herbal remedies in 1996, its popularity continues today.

Joe Smulevitz is a Chartered Herbalist, a Master Herbalist, and author of numerous health articles. Contact Joe by e-mail at

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